The figure of a maternal goddess connected to the land is not a new idea in Hinduism, however, it was not until the conception of Bharat Mata (Mother India), that the worship of the country of India itself as a goddess began to emerge (Foulston 204). What distinguished Bharat Mata from the much older goddess of the Earth, Prithvi, is Bharat Mata’s association with the specific geography of India (Ramaswamy 564). The subcontinent of India itself becomes a goddess and a mother who is sustained by the sacrifice of her children (Kinsley 181). Bharat Mata embodies all that is India: the land, the people, the religion, the culture, and even the politics. This image of a single Mother representing an entire nation was a way to arouse “the national sentiments of the population as a whole,” (Thapar 88) since it was the duty of the collective to protect the Mother from outside dangers (Thapar 88).
One of the earliest depictions of Bharat Mata is in Bhuedeb Mukhopadhyay’s Unabima Purana (‘The Nineteenth Purusa’), where she is portrayed as a widow and the epitome of what it means to be Aryan (Foulston 204-205). Not long afterwards, in 1873, she appeared in Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay’s play, Bharat Mata, as a trodden down motherland (Foulston 205). It, however, was not until her appearance in the nationalist novel Anandamath (Abbey of Bliss or The Sacred Brotherhood) written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, that the character of Bharat Mata began to gain popularity (Foulston 205). The novel was written during the late nineteenth century, a time when the Indian independence movement was at its height, and as a result the figure of a mother who required the protection of her children against outside aggression took on a more central role in India’s fight for political freedom (Kinsley 181).
Chatterjee’s novel itself is set during the late eighteenth century in a Bengali community during the famine of 1770. Anandamath follows a group called the ‘Order of the Children,’ who worship a Mother goddess, as they work to free themselves as well as their Mother from the tyranny of their oppressors (Foulston 205). One of the more significant scenes in the novel occurs when the character of Mahendra is taken into the ‘Order’s’ temple by the chief monk. Once in the temple, Mahendra is shown three different forms of the Mother goddess. The first form depicts the Mother as she was in the past. This form portrays her as Annapurna, the goddess of plenty. The next form of the Mother goddess depicts her in her current state. In contrast to the first form, this form is portrayed as Kali, naked and disheveled. Kali’s nakedness is seen as visually representing all that has been taken away from India since it had been under British rule (Foulston 206). Additionally, Kali is adorned with skulls (Foulston 206) and severed arms (Kinsley 181). The skulls signify the death of the land caused by the famine (Foulston 206), while the severed arms represent the sacrifices that will need to be made in order to free the Mother from British oppression (Kinsley 181).
The final form of the Mother is what she would be if she were liberated: a mighty, ten armed goddess, yielding a weapon in each hand, with the enemy crushed at her feet. This depiction of a supreme warrior draws on the image of the great goddess Durga (Foulston 206 and Ramaswamy 562). Excited by the prospect of this radiant Mother, Mahendra asks when she will once again attain this form to which the chief monk’s reply is, only when all of her children recognize her as true Mother (McKean 254). The chief monk’s reply emphasizes that the only way that liberation, both political and spiritual, can be obtained for the ‘Order’ and the Mother is through complete devotion to and sacrifice for the Mother (McKean 254). It is only when all of the Mother’s children are willing to serve the Mother and sacrifice themselves for her, like the members of the ‘Order’ are willing to do, that the Mother goddess will once again become great (Kinsley 182). This statement can also be seen as paralleling modern Hindu nationalistic rhetoric by suggesting that “anyone who wants a place in India should view India as their sacred land and their Mother” (Foulston 207-208), thus establishing a separation between the devoted children of Bharat Mata and those that would seek to oppress the Mother and her children.
Chatterjee’s Anandamath, in addition to providing one of the first clear figures of the Mother-goddess, also depicts Bharat Mata in the form of a song of praise, which has since become a national song, entitled Vande Mataram (Hail to the Mother or I bow to Thee Mother) (Foulston 207). Incidentally, this song of praise to the Mother goddess in the novel was actually written before the novel itself and has resulted in numerous translations being produced (Foulston 208). Among the translations that have been produced is one by Sri Aurobindo, who was an early proponent of Indian nationalism (Foulston 207). The slogan “Vande Mataram” quickly became popular apart from the novel, as the idea of “the Motherland and the stirring nature of her anthem have been attractive to many seeking their own identity” (Foulston 208). The slogan “Vande Mataram” was used politically for the first time in 1905 at demonstrations for the partition of Bengal. At this point in time, both Hindus and Muslims joined together to shout the slogan. However, by 1921, Hindus used the same slogan against Muslims during the Calcutta riots; thus Vande Mataram is regarded by many Muslims to be anti-Islamic (Foulston 208).
This hymn of praise to the Motherland became “the rallying cry for an emergent patriotic cult of Bharat Mata” (Ramaswamy 558) seeking Indian independence from the British (Foulston 208 and Ramaswamy 558). Even though India is now an independent country, the idea of a Mother-goddess is still very prevalent in India. The Indian national anthem for example, which was first sung in 1911, similarly expresses the same sentiment as Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram (Kinsley 183).
In the Anandamath, Bharat Mata is associated with the fight against British colonialism, however, over the years there has been a transition so that the figure of Bharat Mata has become more closely associated with Hindu nationalism as opposed to Indian nationalism. (Foulston 209). Whereas, during the Indian independence movement, Hindus and Muslims fought alongside each other to free the Mother, the image of Bharat Mata and national identity is now deeply embedded in Hindu piety and activism which is symbolized by the temples erected for Bharat Mata (Gupta 104 and McKean 264). The first temple dedicated to Bharat Mata was erected in 1936 in Banaras (or Varanasi) in which Bharat Mata is represented by a relief map of a still undivided India (Foulston 209). The purpose for building the temple was an “attempt at creating a composite religious and national identity and was seen as a place . . . where all could worship.” (Gupta 102). The desire to create a place where there was no distinction between Hindu and Muslim, people of high caste and people of low caste, however, was undercut by the Hindu symbols that adorned the temple. On the gates of the temple, for example, the slogan Vande Mataram was inscribed. Since its use against Muslims in 1921, this slogan has been considered by many Muslims as anti-Islamic. The use of Vande Mataram on the gates of the temple only served as a way to further alienate the Muslim population and embed the image of Bharat Mata in Hindu nationalism (Foulston 209-210 and Gupta 103-104).
A second temple for Bharat Mata was constructed in 1983 at Haridwar, which is an important pilgrimage city for Hindus, by Swami Satyamiterand Giri, the leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP)(Foulston 210). In comparison to the temple in Banaras, this eight-storey building depicts the figure of Bharat Mata standing on the map of India holding stalks of grain and an urn of milk in her hands (Foulston 210). The Mother goddess herself takes up the first floor, while the other floors are occupied by “a variety of deities, national heroes and virtuous women satis, some of whom have burned themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre” (Foulston 210). The incorporation of both Hindu symbols and deities with national martyrs in the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar associates the national Indian identity with the Hindu identity, and is thus able to convey to its visitors a particular configuration of what a unified India looks like (McKean 277).
Before the consecration of the Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar, the Vishva Hindu Parishad promoted the worship of Bharat Mata via a six-week tour of India. The Vishva Hindu Parishad organized the Ekatmata Rath Yatra (One Mother Chariot Procession) integration ritual, where 400 litres of Ganga water as well as “images of Ganga Ma, Siva, and a temporary shrine to Bharat Mata” (Foulston 210) were taken all over India. During the worship of Bharat Mata, religious leaders as well as Hindu nationalists warned the participants that Hinduism was under threat due to the government’s positive treatment of minorities, particularly Muslims” (Foulston 210-211). Thus the Bharat Mata temple at Haridwar portrays the figure of Mother India in terms of Hindu ideals and values, ultimately presenting Bharat Mata as Hindu.
Since her earliest appearances as the Mother goddess worshiped by a community of renouncers in Chatterjee’s Anandamat, the figure of Bharat Mata has “continued to transform, adapting to differing political agendas (Sen 173). In her earliest form, Bharat Mata was a figure that created unity amongst all Indians. The image of Mother India quickly became associated with the fight for Indian independence, as it was up to the children to free the Mother from the oppression of British rule. At the time when India was suffering under British rule, the idea of a maternal figure that required devotion and self-sacrifice from her children was a beneficial way to unite the entire populace of India against a common cause. The fusion of the land, the people, and the Mother as one served to instill the idea that the only way the people could be free is if the Mother is freed and vice versa. The Indian nationalism associated with Bharat Mata has since shifted towards Hindu nationalism. While the nation of India is still “figured as a loving Mother surrounded by her devoted children,” (McKean 252) the figure of the tyrannical oppressor has now shifted from the British to the secular state as well as Muslims (McKean 252). In this figure of Bharat Mata, “nationhood, culture and religion have become part of a package deal” (Sen 173). There is no longer a separation between the spiritual and the political. The figure of Bharat Mata has become a representative of what it means to be an ideal Hindu.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Duara, Prasenjit (1991) “The New Politics of Hinduism.” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3: 42-50.
Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press.
Gupta, Charu (2006) “The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: Bharat Mata, Matri Bhasha and Gau Mata.” In Beyond Representation: Colonial and Postcolonial Constructions of Indian Identity, edited by Crispin Bates, 100-122. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kinsley, David R (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
McKean, Lisa (1996) “Bharat Mata: Mother India and Her Militant Matriots.” In Devi: Goddesses of India, edited by Hawley, John S. and Donna M. Wulff, 250- 280. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ramaswamy, Sumathi (2005) “The Goddess and the Nation: Subterfuges of Antiquity, the Cunning of Modernity.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, edited by Gavin Flood, 549 – 566. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The Ebook an Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Sen, Geeti (2002) “Iconising the Nation: Political Agendas.” India International Centre Quarterly Vol. 29, No.3/4: 155-175.
Thapar, Suruchi (1993) “Women as Activists; Women as Symbols: A Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement.” Feminist Review, Palgrave Macmillan Journals, Vol. 44: 81–96.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Vishva Hindu Parishad
Ekatmata Rath Yatra
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
Bharat Mata temple in Varanasi
Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Barbra Entz (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.